VERMILLION, S.D. (KELO) — Clay County residents will have the opportunity to vote on a new $41 million courthouse, jail and law enforcement facility after the County Commission decided to issue General Obligation Bonds for the project at the end of March.
Approval of the project now lies in the hands of the voters, who will get make their decision in the upcoming June 8 election.
Clay County Sheriff Andy Howe lists courthouse security issues, lack of handicap accessibility, lack of internet capability, outdated phone systems, poor wiring and the presence of bats as some of the problems facing the facility at present, but some of the most pressing issues trace back to the space and age.
In discussing the issues with the jail, Howe’s concerns seemed to lie primarily with humanitarian conditions of those who are being housed within it. He describes the jail, as it is today, as ‘functioning’ but says that those who use it understand that that it is unsuitable. Howe says that he believes the people of Clay County expect better.
Another issue Howe highlights is the effect the outdated utilities have on the rest of the facility as a whole.
“We do have plumbing issues,” he says candidly. “The plumbing in the jail causes issues for the rest of the courthouse. When the inmates plug the toilets, it’s for the whole courthouse, and these issues can’t continue.”
As for how his own department is faring in the aging facilities, Howe says they have run out of space.
“The Vermillion Police share space with us, and they are very crowded in the Vermillion Police Department in terms of their office space and how they work. We share everything we can share, including an interview room,” Howe said.
Howe says they only have one interview room that they can use to receive a citizen who is making a report, and that’s the same room they need to use for interviewing suspects of crimes.
The Sheriff says he has had to step back and look at it through the eyes of an outsider to really see the scope of the issue.
“I’ve been here since 1988,” he says, “and it’s just the way we’ve done business for so long that sometimes I don’t really see that it could be better until I really take the time to do so.”
Howe says that if the county votes no on the new facilities, something will still have to be done, as the jail is just not big enough.
“If this vote were to fail,” says Howe, “we would have to house all of our inmates out of county. At that point, we would either try to contract with one of the jails in our area to take all of our inmates, but they’ve all got space issues too.”
He says it will likely turn into a situation where they send inmates wherever there is bed space. This, he imagines, will mean Clay County would likely have inmates in at least two or three states. While this is a possible solution, not having the ability to house their own inmates is a concern.
“When it comes down to it,” says Howe, “we’re going to have to house those inmates. We’re either going to house them in Clay County with the passage of the bond and the cost that goes with that, or we’re going to house them in another county at a similar cost. So we’re going to pay anyway, and the question would be, do we pay to build a jail in Clay County, or do we pay to build a jail in another county.”
This is fundamental question that Howe realizes his constituents might not like the answer to. “I think that there’s really a no-win situation for the Clay County voters,” he says. “There’s only expensive alternatives. This alternative that the commission pushed forward is the least expensive alternative, and certainly to do nothing is not a lesser cost.”
Howe says not building a new facility will only cost more in the long run, due to the cost of boarding and transporting prisoners to other jails. “Additionally,” he says, “we won’t have resolved any of the issues in the courthouse itself.”
In terms of the decision to build an all-new facility from scratch, Bob Fuller, Chair of the Clay County Courthouse, Jail and Law Enforcement Facility Planning Committee, says multiple options were originally considered.
One option that Fuller says was handily shot down by the committee was one that involved the demolition of the existing courthouse.
Fuller says that idea, tearing it down, got out to the community and caused quite a stir among the residents.
“One of the concerns we heard quite often was, ‘Don’t tear it down. We don’t want to tear it down.’ Well, we never recommended to tear it down. The committee never said that, the architects said that, but our committee said no,” Fuller said.
Another concern Fuller says was raised was the desire to keep the courthouse operating at its current location. This, he says, is just not an option.
Fuller says that the benefits of a whole new facility include the ability to make it ADA compliant. Currently, there is only one ADA compliant bathroom in the entire courthouse, which is in the basement. Fuller says the new facility would make the county less liable to be subject to a lawsuit due to lack of compliance.
Fuller tells us that even if the courthouse were to be fully renovated and updated, it still would not fix some of the biggest problems. He argues that it is still not big enough to account for future expansion, and that it would still not address other issues.
“If people turn this down, turn this $41 million down, that doesn’t solve the issue. That just postpones it, and it’s going to make it more expensive in the future,” says Fuller.
Fuller says that he recognizes the reality that the bond’s effect on property taxes will be a major concern for Clay County voters when it comes time to mark their ballots, but says that the county is in a situation where something must be done with the jail.
If the $41 million bond is approved, Fuller says he expects the process to take two to three years to build a brand new facility. He also says that while the County does have some ideas of where the new building would be located, no decision will be made until the project has been approved by the voters.